I have come to fall in love with teaching in Catholic schools. What are YOU in love with?...

"Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is, than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you will do with your evenings, how you will spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything." - Pedro Arrupe

Monday, December 28, 2015

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly - A Book Round-Up for 2015

Maybe that's a bit dramatic - none of the books I read were what you might call "ugly," and there really weren't too many "bad" ones in the bunch either. Were there some I liked better than others? Absolutely. Were there some I chose versus some I was "forced" to read? Yeah... As a middle school LA teacher, I don't always get to choose my content, you know what I mean?

Here's my list - 32 strong! (Not that quantity matters - it's all about quality in my book...) -->

1) "The Hobbit" (finished 1/1/15) - Fantasy (for school)
2) "Moon Over Manifest" (1/17/15) - Historical YA Fiction
3) "Eight Keys" (2/2/15) - Realistic YA Fiction
4) "Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring" (4/19/15) - Fantasy
5) "Elephant Talk" (4/25/15) - Nonfiction (for school)
6) "Into the Unknown" (4/25/15) - Nonfiction (for school)
7) "Shooting Kabul" (5/13/15) - Historical YA Fiction (for school)
8) "The Cay" (5/17/15) - Historical YA Fiction (for school)
9) "Fish in a Tree" (5/23/15) - Realistic YA Fiction
10) "Under the Egg" (5/25/15) - Historical YA Fiction
11) "Data Wise" (6/13/15) - Professional Development
12) "Brown Girl Dreaming" (6/14/15) - Memoir/Poetry
13) "The Return of the Prodigal Son" (7/6/15) - Spiritual/Religious Nonfiction
14) "Paper Things" (7/12/15) - Realistic YA Fiction
15) "One for the Murphys" (7/24/15) - Realistic YA Fiction
16) "Real Kids, Real Stories, Real Change" (7/25/15) - Nonfiction YA (for school)
17) "Crenshaw" (7/25/15) - YA Fiction
18) "Teaching Reading in Middle School" (7/27/15) - Professional Development
19) "Sondheim: The Man Who Changed Musical Theater" (7/28/15) - Nonfiction YA
20) "In Defense of Read Aloud" (7/28/15) - Professional Development
21) "Echo" (7/29/15) - Historical YA Fiction
22) "Stargirl" (7/30/15) - Realistic YA Fiction
23) "The Classroom Management Book" (7/31/15) - Professional Development
24) "Be Always Little: Christian Fables for Young and Old" (8/3/15) - Spiritual
25) "Small as an Elephant" (8/5/15) - Realistic YA Fiction
26) "Escape from Mr Lemoncello's Library" (8/22/15) - Mystery YA
27) "Stella by Starlight" (9/10/15) - Historical YA Fiction
28) "Unbroken" (audio) (10/25/15) - Nonfiction
29) "The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto" (11/23/15) - Fiction (with historical figures)
30) "I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives" (11/28/15) - memoir (dual) YA nonfiction
31) "The Hobbit" (12/14/15) - Fantasy (for school --> re-read)
32) "Just Mercy" (12/27/15) - Nonfiction

(Technically, the titles listed should all be underlined or italicized, but I kept this list on my phone, and I didn't really have the energy (or patience) to go back and change them all. I apologize to all of you grammar lovers out there.)

Now, I would award the books I read as follows (not that my awards matter - it's more fun this way, though):

BEST OVERALL ADULT READ: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson (a story about the corruption within the US prison & judicial systems as well as one man's fight to bring justice)

BEST OVERALL YA READ: Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli (a story about being true to yourself and the effects of peer pressure/group acceptance in a high school setting)

MOST MEMORABLE READ: The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto by Mitch Albom (a fictional story of a musician set within the context of real world events; told from the perspective of music as the narrator)

MOST LIFE-CHANGING/APPLICABLE TO LIFE: The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen (a wonderful read about mercy and multiple perspectives on the oft-heard Bible passage)

Some other highlights (or comments of note):

*I enjoyed Lord of the Rings #1 more than I thought I would. I was interested in reading the second book in the trilogy, but I felt I could not commit another two months (which is the length of time it took me to read book 1) to it at the time. Maybe one day I will finish the trilogy and finally see the movies!

*A number of the books I read hold potential for teachers to use as read alouds or books studies to draw attention to issues such as homelessness (Crenshaw, Paper Things), poverty & current events (I Will Always Write Back), and being true to oneself/accepting others who are different (Stargirl, Paper Things). One for the Murphys deals with going through the foster care system, and Fish in a Tree gives light to the idea that all children have different gifts and learn in different ways.

*I remembered reading The Cay in 6th grade, so I obtained copies for students to read in our historical fiction unit this spring. I firmly believe that every middle school student should read this book because of how it deals with prejudice, courage, and hope.

*Echo was amazingly crafted by Pam Munoz Ryan - the way she wove all the stories together so seamlessly left me in awe. Though it is a long read, it is worth your time!

*Unbroken blew my mind - Hearing about the torture and various events Louis Zamperini lived through and how faith ultimately saved his life was very inspiring.

As you might guess, I could go on and on, but, unfortunately, I still have quite a bit of student work to grade and some lesson planning to accomplish, so I must bring this year-end book review to its close.

I hope the new year brings many more incredible books my way and yours!

Monday, December 21, 2015

Christmas is all about "Presence"

" 'Cause Christmas is not about presents,
But it's about being in the presence of the people you love!"

Such is how "Q Bros Christmas Carol" (a musical/rap adaptation of the Dickens classic) ends, complete with a lights and snowflakes spectacular.

The show is worthy of praise for its balance of humor and poignancy. But it really does hit the nail on the head with that last refrain (above) - it's about PRESENCE.

In our fast-paced, SMART- (but not wise-) phone world, being present - truly present - to others is a lost art. There are so many distractions and so much noise - we ask ourselves, how can we better listen? How can we just STOP and enjoy other people's company instead of checking Facebook/Twitter updates or being worried about who/what we're seeing next?

I invite you to reflect on this a moment: How would our world be different if we all slowed down, resisted what we call "progress?" That's the kind of world I wish for this Christmas - that's the kind of world I want to work for.

My Christmas card cover - sold at World Market

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Extreme Makeover: Advent Prayer Edition

As I admitted to my 8th graders earlier this week, I wasn't doing so hot in my communication with God prior to Thanksgiving. (As a religion teacher, this is probably shocking, I know. But, unfortunately, it is true. 100%)

But, along came Advent, and I decided it was time to overhaul my prayer life, starting with making it a priority. To do this, I set my alarm clock for 15 minutes earlier each day than I would normally get up. (On the days I go to the gym, that's pretty darn early (because prayer is literally the first 15 minutes of my day), but it's worth it.) And in those 15 minutes, I sit with the readings of the day or reflections (mainly) from three sources: The Little Blue Advent Book, Fr. Barron's written reflections, and Sacred Reading from the Apostleship of Prayer. In addition, I journal a few thoughts here and there - you know, the main takeaways.

In looking back over my journal recently, I noticed a few themes:

1) Waiting is active. And it is hard. We have to keep in perspective how sometimes God completes His will only after a very long time. God's time isn't our time. We need to trust in the "slow work of God." We can't expect immediate returns.

2) We need to ask God/Jesus for His will in our lives. "Lord Jesus, make me the person YOU want me to be. I give myself to you." That's hard to say and truly mean when you say it. (Kinda like the Suscipe.) It's easy to hold back and say this and add on "...but really XYZ," isn't it?

3) It's time to get more familiar with the Bible. Bible study is all well and good, but I need to examine Scripture on my own too. There is so much richness in history and in the fulfillment of Jesus' coming.

4) We make promises for the times it is hard to keep them, not for the times it is easy to do so. If I could only tell you how many times this Advent season this thought has kicked me in the butt to get out of bed for the gym (commitment) or to listen to the Divine Mercy chaplet as I snuggle into bed each night when I'd rather fall asleep. It's so true - We promise so that we stick to something (or someone) when the going gets tough or when we just don't feel like it. And keeping that promise makes all the difference. And you know something? God always keeps His promises.

I pray that the remainder of this Advent season brings you and your loved ones peace and joy.

Went to the Chriskindlmarket tonight downtown - not quite sure how this translates, but I think it has something to do with "Goodbye" and "Happy Holidays!"

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Arizona Visit Long Overdue

What an amazing weekend it was - I got to spend time with my dad in Phoenix. (He was there for a conference.) And, fortunately, I had the chance to go to my ACE school (SJV) and to visit some of my previous co-workers, friends, and students...

SJV <3 collage

Spending time with the SJV moms :)

The Don Bosco statue still stands!

so many good memories in that church

Then (top) and Now (bottom) with former students (and their siblings)

Met up with my college roommate (who currently lives in AZ)

SJV selfie :D :D :D

We stayed at the Arizona Biltmore - it was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, which you can definitely tell. It was a beautiful property...but we had quite a bit of difficulty finding our way to visitor parking each time. I consider this understandable - the property is huge and has multiple entrances and winding drives! (Did I mention that the beds were so incredibly soft?? AMAZING!) It was definitely a "how the other half lives" experience.

Christmas tree in courtyard (by night)
Christmas tree in courtyard (by day)

on the way to our room

We could have played chess...but we didn't ;)

No trip to AZ would be complete without some of my favorite restaurants ;)


On Saturday, my dad and I went to the Musical Instrument Museum (in Phoenix). It's organized by continent and has so many instruments from around the world. If you ever go, we recommend you start with Europe and North America and work your way through to Asia and Africa. (We had to squeeze in those first two mentioned in about 20 minutes, as the museum was about to close. Bummer.) If you are a music lover, you cannot miss this place!

Let me tell you, though - one thing I've really missed about Arizona is just the beautiful, serene desert. The colors, sunrises (& sunsets), and mild temperatures cannot be beat! It was absolutely incredible.

All in all, the trip was well worth it, and I am grateful that my dad invited me. 

It was good to be "home."

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

So many Advent resources, So little time

Such is life - better to have too many than not enough, right?

But man does that make it difficult for someone like me - I'm afraid to miss out on a really good one, so instead I always find myself doing all the reflections. Clearly, when I do it that way, I'm not being fully present for each one.

There's no one remedy or catch-all solution. But I have (for the record) tried to pare down a little this year - here's what I've been doing:

*I begin my morning with the "Little Blue Book for Advent" and Sacred Reading, spending about 15 minutes in prayer first thing. (That's the promise I made to myself for Advent - and, as far as promises go, you should listen to Fr. Mike Schmitz's podcast this week on promises --> They are made for those times that are difficult, not for the times when it's easy to keep them. That definitely got me out of bed this morning when I was tired and would rather have stayed in bed, no joke.)

*I receive the "Best Advent Ever" daily emails from Dynamic Catholic.

*I've come up with my mantra/slogan (something to say to yourself every morning to help you focus the day) for the season, as urged to do so by our priest at Mass on Sunday: "Prepare ye the way of the Lord!"

*I stopped reading a few daily reflections that I use outside of the Advent season. (I know this seems rather silly - why fix something that's not broken, right? - but it's really helped me focus.)

*I keep a written journal of my personal reflections and ideas based on what I read and pray about each day. (That's been AWESOME! I highly encourage the practice of journaling, even if it's just bullet points.)

What about you - Do you have any awesome reflections or things going on in your life this Advent season to help prepare the way of the Lord?